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Friday, April 16, 2010

The Likely Folly of the Smarter Planet

As I watched the Masters last weekend (and the NCAA men's basketball tournament the weeks before that), I saw about a hundred IBM commercials like this one featuring various "IBM-ers" encouraging me to build a smarter planet.  The idea is that by gathering huge amounts of information, aggregating it, analyzing it, and automating it, organizations can predict the future based on past patterns and adjust to the prediction as soon as new information is gathered.

I have to admit, I find this idea very cool.  It reminds me of my favorite sci-fi story series, Isaac Asimov's Foundation, which involves the futuristic discipline of psychohistory, which applies mathematics to huge numbers of people to predict the collective future of those people.  Asimov also fiddled with this concept in his short story collection I, Robot, not in his depiction of sentient humanoid constructions but with respect to computers that eventually run economies, governments, businesses, etc. because their powers of prediction based on data far surpass any human's.

Speaking of predictions, I predict that the IBM-ers will succeed in building a smarter planet.  We will multiply automated, flexible systems that manage situations "in real time," which makes everything run more smoothly.  We will more ably predict the future in ways hidden from most of us, and that will make life better.

But in one important respect this smarter planet will make us much dumber: we will grow so accustomed to being able to predict the future based on our automated analysis of huge amounts of data that we will actually think we know stuff.  Our confidence that we can predict anything by just advancing our data collection and analysis incrementally will lead us into colossal failures of judgment, because as our predictive capacity grows the size of our blind spot toward what we can't predict will grow too.  History is too littered with such failures of judgment and perception (most recently the financial meltdown) to make plausible the idea that just a little more data or a little more automation will grant us omniscience.  In biblical words, "Knowledge puffs up" (1 Cor. 8:1), and "Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall" (Prov. 16:18).

Kind of reminds one of the tower of Babel, doesn't it?  Think God will let us get away with that this time around?

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel (1563)

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